Semarang City Attractions

Semarang City Attractions

Semarang is a Dutch colonial town situated in the northern coast of Indonesia. With a population of 2 million people, it is the largest city and the capital of Central Java.

Obviously, it is not a popular getaway for tourists looking for adventure and excitement. And I must admit that judging on my ride from the Achmad Yani Airport to Quest Hotel, I easily dismissed Semarang as a mundane provincial city with nothing much to offer.

So why was I there anyway? I wanted to see the Candi Gedong Songo and Semarang is the nearest city to it with an airport and railway station.

I only had one day to explore Semarang before my trip to Yogyakarta and since I absolutely had no idea on where to go, I hired a driver for 25,000 rupiah to take me around town.

The Old Town Quarter

The Quest Hotel is located near the Old Town Quarter, so we started there. My driver, Nanang, parked the car outside Semarang's railway station and told me take pictures. I obliged, but honestly, I didn't see anything notable or fascinating about it. However, located across the train station is a cluster of intriguing colonial-era buildings begging to be noticed.

Semarang's Tawang Train Station
Semarang's Railway Station

Directly in front of the train station is a water reservoir, it was built to control floods and high tides.

Semerang's water reservoir
This reservoir used to be a children's playground

Also in the surrounding area is the red-brick Marba building which was owned by a Yemeni merchant. Semarang was a thriving business city during the 19th century and due to its proximity to the seaport it has attracted wealthy foreign merchants from all over the world.

Marba Building Semarang
The Marba building is named after its owner Marta Badjunet

Further down the road from the Marba building stands a rather unusual structure called the Marabunta Gedung Multiguna. It served as the town theater where Dutch officials watched comedies and stage performances--indigenous people were not allowed inside.

It is hard not to notice this building simply because the giant twin red ants on the roof are waving hello.

Marabunta Theater Semarang
"What is this a center for ants?" - Derek Zoolander

Perhaps the most preserved colonial architecture in the Old Town Quarter is that of the Gereja Blenduk. It's a Protestant church built in 1753, making it the oldest and most important church in all of Central Java.

Gereja Blenduk Semarang
Gereja Blenduk translates to Dome Church

Sam Poo Kong

Moving on to another popular place of worship, we made our way to Sam Poo Kong--the oldest Chinese temple in Semarang. Entering the complex one might think that it is just like any Chinese temple ever built. Not quite, Sam Poo Kong is actually rather unique and in a sense, ironic. Its religious ambiguity has attracted all sorts of patrons, from Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and even the local Javanese.

Sam Poo Kong in Semarang
The Sam Poo Kong temple is a testament to the cultural diversity of Semarang

The Sam Poo Kong temple was built to honor the great explorer Admiral Cheng Ho. A man who have commanded numerous voyages all over Asia, Africa and India. His extraordinary expeditions had been considered to be some of the greatest contributions in the Maritime history.

Admiral Cheng Ho Sam Poo Kong Semarang
 Behind the bronze statue of the Admiral is the bright red gate patterned after the Forbidden City

Sam Poo Kong is located at Simongan road, 3 kilometers south of the city center. It is open everyday with an entrance fee of 30,000 rupiah.

Lawang Sewu

Out of all the attractions in Semarang, my guide Nanang, was excited to bring me to Lawang Sewu, a Javanese term for "A Thousand Doors". Again, I didn't get it. From the outside, it looked like a decaying building that probably was a school or a municipal hall. It actually reminded of the Manila City Hall--if it only had one tower instead of two. Beautiful facade, sure. But not something to be enthusiastic about.

Lawang Sewu - A Thousand Doors in Semarang Indonesia
The house of a thousand doors

From the huge grin on Nanang's face I wouldn't have expected that the grounds I was standing on was the most haunted place in Java, if not in all of Indonesia. Clearly, he had an odd way of expressing something scary. Well actually, his ironic smile scared the dickens out of me.

As we roamed the Lawang Sewu he told me a lot of stories and urban legend that still haunts the building, starting with the doors. Apparently, the doors are not exactly a thousand. Every time somebody attempts to count the doors, the total is always different; either less or more than one thousand. And nobody has ever counted it twice and arrived at the same number.

Perhaps, you can attribute the miscalculations to the complex structure of the building, with so many interconnecting rooms and hallways, it's very easy to lose count. But Nanang didn't deemed it as simple as that, he thought that supernatural forces are intervening. As much as I am a skeptic, I didn't argue. I looked around me and thought, "This is the last place I would wanna be proven wrong."

Lawang Sewu - A Thousand Doors in Semarang Indonesia
Not a ghost, just a spooky tourist.

Lawang Sewu was primarily the Dutch railway office but upon the arrival of the Japanese during the second World War, it was converted into a military headquarters. Today, it is a popular attraction for thrill-seekers looking for ghosts and mysterious apparitions.

The Lawang Sewu building is located right smack at the Tugu Muda roundabout. Admission ticket costs 10,000 rupiah and 30,000 with a guide. It opens at 9 am but to further amp up the scare factor, it is also accepting night tours as late as 9 p.m. Night visitors are provided with flashlights and rubber boots for exploring the pitch-black basements in flooded water.

[Watch the video of a reality show that featured Lawang Sewu; the language is in Bahasa only]

Tugu Muda monument Semarang
The Tugu Muda monument is at the center of the roundabout across the Lawang Sewu

Tay Kak Sie Temple

We capped of our tour at the Tay Kak Sie temple in the Chinatown area. It is located in Jalan Gang Lombok, quite hard to find, with narrow alleys leading to it. Unlike the vast complex of most Chinese temples, this one is out in the open--no fancy gates, pagodas or statues. But despite of its peculiar look and location it still exudes the charm of a real ancient 18th century temple.

Tay Kak Sie Temple Semarang

Everything inside the temple, the altar, idols, ornaments and wood works looked authentic and antique. However, the unmissable ship outside the temple is what truly makes Tay Kak Sie even more eccentric. 

Ship Replica at Tay Kak Sie temple Semarang
The replica of Admiral Cheng Ho's ship located outside the Tay Kak Sie temple

As of this writing though, I've learned that the ship has already been demolished last year (2014) because it was blocking the flow of the river. Kind of unfortunate since it was such an iconic landmark. But if it was causing more harm than good then it probably was the right move. 

The ship replica was playground to these kids.

Final Thoughts

Like any city with a dark colonial past, Semarang is a heritage-laden city with stories waiting to be told--or in their case, probably buried. As a Filipina who grew up in Manila, I felt an instant connection to the old buildings and churches in Semarang. But as I look back now, I realize that the atmosphere there was entirely different. 

Our buildings and churches in Manila with great historical importance are well preserved and often visited. Spanish era churches are filled to the brim every Sunday service while parks and monuments are often renovated--sometimes to a point that it doesn't even look old and historic anymore. 

Semarang on the other hand is completely the opposite. Although the remnants of the Dutch era is still lingering in the city, the atmosphere is not as nostalgic. The old buildings are abandoned and almost decaying as if they were purposely neglected. The church, although functional can be better cared for. The 100 year old Lawang Sewu is left to be a haunted attraction in the midst of a bustling modern city.

Maybe, because Semarang--and Indonesia in general--is predominantly Muslim, and that made them reluctant to conserve a culture that they don't really care for. Or perhaps the colonial origin of the buildings and the tragic times it brought still haunts them up to this day and that might be keeping them from moving forward. Neither of these might be true but it is how I felt as I was wandering around town.

Again, as someone who has lived in country where independence was fought and died for, I can sympathize with the people of Semarang. Our nations have suffered from both the European and Japanese occupations. And yet, we both come out of it differently. Of course, neither of us can definitively say who has it better, there's just so many factors and history to consider.

If anything, I've learned a lot on this trip, things and realizations I wouldn't have learned at home or elsewhere. I'm glad I gave Semarang a chance, it surprised me with its unpretentious beauty, charming people and above all its strange yet familiar surroundings.

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